March 23, 2010

Something Wonderful: Today is the 235th Anniversary of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death"

Especially appropriate for the present moment, "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" is one of the touchstones of revolution then and now. It was originally delivered "in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, in Saint John's Church in Richmond, Virginia." And at that moment it is worth noting that from the point of view of Henry's government, the speech was treason.

Interestingly, the speech itself was not written down or even published until some years after Patrick Henry's death.

The text of this speech first appeared in print in Life and Character of Patrick Henry by William Wirt which was first published in 1816, seventeen years after Patrick Henry's death. In 1815, Wirt wrote to a friend, "from 1763 to 1789... not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory. All that is told me is, that on such and such an occasion, he made a distinguished speech" Wirt corresponded with men who had heard the speech and others who were acquainted with people who were there at the time. Wirt wrote to Judge St. George Tucker, who had been present for the speech, that "I have taken almost entirely Mr. Henry's speech in the Convention of '75 from you, as well as your description of its effect on you verbatim."

Tucker's account was based upon recollections and not notes. Tucker attempted a reconstruction of only the first two paragraphs of the speech. Tucker wrote, "In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech". While this implies a degree of uncertainty over the content of the speech, the amount of research done by Wirt in the process of creating his text strongly argues that he was able to accurately reconstruct the key points, especially the famous quote itself. It is generally agreed that it ended with, "It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" -- Give me Liberty, or give me Death!

Posted by Vanderleun at March 23, 2010 9:15 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

So much meaning and passion in one small sentence. Timeless in its impact. Applicable for an eternity as long as men want to remain free.

Posted by: Cilla Mitchell, Galveston Texas at March 24, 2010 5:01 AM

Possibly the finest speech in the English language, and it appears that Mr. Henry was right to smell a rat, too.

As an aside, I am an admirer of St. George Tucker. One more contribution to chalk up to his name.

Posted by: Ken at March 24, 2010 8:04 AM

My local PBS station recently aired a documentary explaining the events leading up to the speech. It concludes with a dramatic reenactment of the oration inside St. John's Church - period costumes, characters, brilliant acting. A DVD of the program is available at no charge for educational organizations and can be purchased by individuals using the link below:

Posted by: mrp at March 24, 2010 9:20 AM

He sounds subversive to me. I think this should be classified as hate speech. Hate speech compounded by the fact that he promotes violence against his betters in the Mother Country. And with his froo-froo outfit, he is obviously mocking Barney Frank.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at March 24, 2010 3:46 PM

And I might add the anecdote about the man who heard the speech leaning through a window and wrote to his wife "The first time in my life I heard a politician speak common sense. I want to be buried beneath that window, so I can rise to hear political common sense again..."

You can see his UNDISTURBED grave and tombstone under the window...still awaiting more common sense.

Posted by: Good Ole Charlie at March 24, 2010 7:18 PM

These days the call is to: "Give me your liberty and we'll give you death panels"

Posted by: monkeyfan at March 25, 2010 12:59 PM